Premier League final day - Leicester City fall short, but let's not call it a choke - The Warm-Up
Fifth place last season, fifth place this - Brendan Rodgers's Leicester City are finding it tough to break into the big time. But that's just the nature of the Premier League. Elsewhere, Europe's less fashionable leagues get ready for the Conference, and Lille win the title for the first time in a decade.
Manager of Leicester City Brendan Rodgers at the end of the Premier League match between Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur at The King Power Stadium
So there we go. The least predictable Premier League season of all time ended with perhaps the most predictable top four. The Big Six, minus the two north London migraines, and all is right with the world again.
We could call it a Leicester choke. Once again they've spent most of the season inside the top four; once again they've finished in fifth. That bizarre 4-2 defeat to Newcastle looks pretty miserable in hindsight. So too Sunday's failure to hold the lead against Spurs, regardless of what was happening elsewhere.
But choke makes it all a little personal, a little too soap opera. The reason this top four are so strong isn't just because they're the richest and biggest and bestest. It's because of how that plays out over a season: the squad depth, the resilience and flexibility that comes along with it.
That's why City can whip up a new, best-in-continent way of playing on the fly after discovering that pandemic football is a different problem. That's why Liverpool, with a defence made up of two rotating doors, can pull themselves into the top four on the back of their goalscoring and Nat Phillips' big headers and Jurgen Klopp's big hugs. That's why Chelsea can switch manager, tactics, and approach mid-season, and ride Jorginho's penalties back to par.
Big clubs bounce back better because they've paid for all the added features: heated seats, tinted windows, and a Diogo Jota to go with the best front three in the league.
So as much as it's tempting to ascribe this to some inherent weakness in Brendan Rodgers's teams, a psychic brittleness deep at the heart of his methods, we could just as easily say that falling away at the end of the season is what happens when clubs that don't quite have the resources reach the end of a long campaign. Everybody's just that little bit more knackered, and all the alternatives are just that little bit less effective.
To be a big club is to be able to ride out a crisis without having to entirely tear things down and rebuild from scratch. This isn't to downplay the scale of Liverpool's collapse — they've given up 30 points on last season — or City's achievement. Or to say that Leicester couldn't have held on to the Champions League spot: just don't lose to Newcastle, lads. But even if they had, next season would have seen all the big clubs come again.
The structural inequities of the league are so deeply ingrained that it will take more than canny management to disrupt them in any long-term way. And a failure to overcome them isn't necessarily a choke, even if Rodgers is, presumably, feeling just a little bit sick this morning.
'It hurts' - Rodgers ' bitterly disappointed' at missing out on Champions League
A (Partial) Defence of the European Conference League
One common thread through the Premier League's last day was the sense that finishing seventh, and so likely qualifying for the Europa Conference League, amounted to something of a punishment. Imagine the indignity of being forced to schelp around [insert funny-named, distant-sounding foreign place here].
There is a sporting logic to this. Better to have midweeks free for coaching and recovery than be forced onto the Thursday-Sunday-Thursday treadmill. For any team that aspires to a Champions League place, having to play in the Europa League was already an inconvenience, and that at least comes with the big prize for the winner. And a cool trophy.
But then, such clubs aren't really the point of the Europa Conference. Unlike the other two, qualification is slanted towards the smaller leagues: England get only one spot, for example, while Scotland get two, and both Wales and the Republic of Ireland a full three places. The hope is that teams whose only experience of European football is getting walloped in the qualifying rounds, actually get something with a bit of shape to it.
Leaving aside the wisdom of squeezing a whole lot of extra travel into everybody's lives, we're very much coming round to the idea. Partly it's the lingering memory of the Cup Winners' Cup, which did alright by young up and coming manager Alex Ferguson. Partly it's because it will make the Europa League just a little bit smaller, which is a blessing.
And partly because it seems a worthy attempt to spread the joy of European campaigns around a bit. The Premier League's temporarily embarrassed super clubs may consider it beneath them, but that's fine: it's not for them anyway. There's a decent chance that continental knockout football — one of the best forms of football — will be going to unusual places next season, to fans that haven't had the pleasure.
Also there's a chance we get Roma against Spurs next season. We can all hopefully agree that it's well worth inventing a whole new competition just to give Jose Mourinho the chance to really annoy either his former or current employers. It's what he does.
'I don't expect him to be ready' - Solskjaer is still not confident about Maguire
Congratulations to Lille, champions of France for the first time in 10 years. A wonderful story threaded through with all sorts of exciting mini-stories. Renato Sanches, on the fourth act of his career despite only being 23. Burak Yılmaz, brought in to provide experience and instead turning out to be the best player in France. José Fonte: 37! Jonathan David, soccer's second-best Canadian. (Here's Eurosport's Pete Sharland with much more on all this.)
And not a bad turnaround for coach Christophe Galtier, who joined Lille in December 2017 after Marcelo Bielsa — whatever happened to him? — was fired after a few expensive, unimpressive months. Later that season, as Lille struggled against relegation, the fans invaded the pitch and charged their own players. It was not a happy club.
Covid means there haven't been any pitch invasions this season, which is a shame as these ones would have been friendly. But the odd circumstances shouldn't detract from Lille's exceptional achievement in holding off the Neymar-powered superclub behind them. And speaking of Neymar …
More goalkeepers standing miles over to one side, please. Penalties are so egregiously unfair anyway that nobody's going to mind if it doesn't work, and every now and then one of the best players in the world will look up, panic, and put the thing wide. Here at the Warm-Up we love two things above all others: the humbling of the mighty superclubs, and comedy penalty misses. Merci, France.
IN OTHER NEWS
Starting to get the sense that the supporters of FC Nantes aren't too keen on their owner, Waldemar Kita. Just a suspicion. Could be wrong.
Fine. Go on then. Since he's played his last game for City. Here's the last 10 minutes of that game against QPR: that goal, that celebration, that title win. Still ridiculous, however many times you see it.
For the Guardian, Sid Lowe has been talking to Kieran Trippier, newly-minted champion of Spain. Not quite as spectacular a story as Luis Suárez's move, perhaps. But a team and a player that worked out perfectly for each other.
There was a reason why he played every minute until his [10-game] ban and was immediately returned to the team after it. There is a reason why he has finished with 28 league appearances – every one 90 minutes long. In which he has provided six assists and not collected a yellow card. Nor, thankfully, did his absence deny him, or his team, the title. It might just have made it more dramatic, taking it to the final day.
Today is the second leg of the Scottish Premier League's promotion/relegation playoff, and it's Championship side Dundee that have the advantage after the first leg. Charlie Adam, still doing the business.
Ben Snowball has a penalty-saving technique so powerful that he is forbidden by law from ever using it. Instead he gets to do tomorrow's Warm-Up, which is good news all round.